Credit: Illustration by Brooke Hatfield

Two of the District’s news stations lost their sports anchors this summer, and most of the city barely seemed to notice.

Channel 4’s Lindsay Czarniak announced in late June that she’d been hired away to ESPN; a month later, Channel 9’s Brett Haber said he was stepping down to pursue other opportunities, such as the side work he’s done for the Tennis Channel. There was some chatter on Twitter. There were a few blog posts and Style-section updates. Then viewers—and station management—moved on.

Both Czarniak and Haber seem to be casualties of the changing media landscape. Sports fans nowadays don’t have to wait for the 11 p.m. news to find out how their team did. They can watch games on their cell phones, follow play-by-plays on the Internet, or, of course, just flip over to Czarniak’s new employer, ESPN. Having lost the audience of people who really care about sports, the folks who broadcast at 6 and 11 have, in turn, downgraded the once-prominent job of sports anchor.

“Sports is just not as relevant [to local news] as it once was,” Haber told the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi after resigning. “If you asked me will my job exist as currently constituted 10 to 20 years down the line, I would say probably not.”

It’s hard to get too wistful about the journalistic implications of this change: Though there have been stellar news people working local TV-sports jobs, there have also been plenty of knuckleheads with a penchant for soft questions and even softer analysis.

But the disappearance of the sports anchor also heralds some cultural changes that are worth pondering. Local TV—in all its goofy glory—once represented something that residents of a region as big and diverse as Washington had in common. The fact that Haber (a stalwart defender of Washington City Paper against Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder’s lawsuit) and Czarniak are leaving with such little fanfare only underscores how that’s no longer the case. The severing of yet another connective cultural thread isn’t just a loss for the stations and their advertisers. It’s a loss for anyone invested in our sense of community.

There was a time when the local sportscast was a basic part of what made the several million people in the Washington region feel tied together. George Michael, who left Channel 4 four years ago and died in 2009, was the last one of the older generation of sportscasters in the area. But ask any native Washingtonian about a sports anchor he or she misses, and chances are you’ll hear about Glenn Brenner.

Brenner came to Channel 9 in 1977. For the next 15 years, he was the funniest, liveliest, best thing on local TV. His own portions of the broadcasts were full of silly stunts. He had a nun pick football results (against the spread, of course). He named some overpaid athlete or sports owner Weenie of the Week each Friday. There was no question Brenner knew he was reporting on fun and games; the joy he took from all of it shone through the television.

Like many households in the area during Brenner’s time here, my family watched Channel 9’s newscasts nightly. Sure, features like Weenie of the Week may have been tailor-made for adolescent boys like me. But Brenner added warmth and kindness to his sophomoric shtick, and the results were magic.

When Brenner died in January 1992, after being off the air for a few months with what turned out to be a brain tumor, the whole city mourned. President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush issued an official statement. Channel 9 ran a 30-minute prime-time retrospective, mixing clips of Brenner at his most antic with touching tributes from his colleagues and man-on-the-street interviews. Just how fiercely did people love Brenner? On the afternoon he died, I arrived at a Rockville municipal swimming pool for my high school team’s practice. The coach canceled it midway through, too distracted; he choked up as he told us to go home. None of us thought that was odd. It’s hard to imagine such an outpouring for a contemporary local-TV personality.

Of course, the ability of a sports anchor to unite a region depends in no small part on how the local franchises are faring. And it’s hard to argue that the 1980s didn’t treat the region’s teams better than our current era. The Wizards, then the Bullets, won a championship in Brenner’s second year here. The Orioles, then the only baseball outfit around, won a World Series. The Redskins, the club that truly gripped people here, won three Super Bowls in the Brenner era. Their final title came just after he died. The team dedicated its NFC championship to his memory.

These days, sports can’t pull the city together in quite the same way. It’s easy for transplants to follow their home teams thanks to cable and the Internet—after all, not everyone in a Phillies jersey at Nationals Park has driven down I-95 for the game. Winning would help, but even if the Redskins surprise the world and finish this year on top, local news on TV isn’t doing much better than local news on paper in the new media economy. “The audience has been shrinking for years,” says Scott Jones, a former news producer who now runs ftvlive.com, a site that monitors the industry.

Buyouts and staff cuts may have helped drive up profits at Gannett, NBC, Allbritton, and Fox (the corporations that own the area’s TV news stations), but they aren’t helping forge any social bonds. The news broadcast as an institution feels less essential without the big personalities of a few decades ago. After a day of reading local headlines in the morning paper, on Twitter, on blogs, and on the Web, my wife and I tune in to the late local news either because there’s some big story breaking or because we’re gripped by some sense of nostalgia—Channel 4’s Jim Vance spoke at my high school graduation, so I’ll flip over during a Daily Show commercial break.

Czarniak and Haber are probably getting out when the getting’s good. Local sports coverage is faring even worse than the rest of the broadcast, Jones says: “If it’s not becoming extinct, it’s certainly on the endangered list.” Following the advice of industry consultants, more and more stations are focusing on weather. (Witness the high-profile poaching of Bob Ryan, another throwback to the time when Michael and Brenner thrived, by Channel 7 after years with Channel 4.)

These latest two departures barely made a splash. The next time a local sports anchor leaves town, will anyone notice at all?

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